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Housing, jobs a priority for veterans

TRENT OPSTEDAHL | BEMIDJI PIONEER A man thanks local military members Wednesday during an open forum on veterans issues held at the Beltrami County Commission offices.

BEMIDJI — Housing and jobs were the main topics of a veterans issues forum held here Wednesday.

Staff of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., hosted the meeting and met with about 25 area military personnel, veterans advocates and community members to discuss local, state and federal resources for veterans.

State Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, spoke extensively about the lack of housing available to Minnesota veterans, but added the state is “on the right track” in getting more housing facilities.

“We have good funding for county service veterans (offices),” Persell said, who serves on the Veterans Service Division Committee in the House. “I was told we were going to get veterans homes up here, and there’s no doubt in my mind Bemidji will have a veterans home someday.”

Nationally, there are between 130,000 to 200,000 homeless veterans in America on any given night, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Persell said there have been four petitions in the state voicing a need for veterans housing. “There’s no large amount of funding coming from the federal government, and that’s part of the problem and why there has been this delay, and so we have been reevaluating the need of veterans housing in the state,” he said.

Persell also said the national sequester funding problem has had an impact on veterans funding.

 Scotty Allison, Beltrami County Veterans Service coordinator, said informing the public of issues facing veterans and steps needed to address those concerns is important.

“There has to be more awareness in getting homes for veterans,” Allison said. “A lot of the time, veterans will end up living with someone else, which might be OK, but that still makes them homeless.”

Allison acknowledged many of the positive changes and outcomes that have occurred within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but mentioned unease about constant backlogging he sees on a daily basis, and said some of the paperwork that takes months in Bemidji “only takes two weeks in Fargo.”

Employment and easing back into non-military life is also an issue for veterans. Larry Roulet of the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, said his primary job is to help veterans find employment, specifically in the Bemidji area. Roulet said staffing available to help veterans “is spread thin” and people need to be reminded that “any military veteran…needs to be guaranteed a priority in service” for state agencies.

“We have a good system,” Roulet added. “Many of you here today are folks we work with, and I thank you for your services.”

Similarly, Allison said he is proud of the work he and so many others do for Minnesota veterans.

“I think what we do is incredible,” Allison said. “I hope everyone remembers Memorial Day on Monday and makes an effort to attend a service or two around town to honor our veterans.”

Paul Pedersen, outreach manager for Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans, was among the presenters at Wednesday’s forum. He was pleased to see people from the area come to the discussion and support Minnesota’s veterans.

“It’s important to me and so many others to stabilize and give support to them,” said Pedersen, who’s been an outreach manager for six years. “We need to make sure the services and veterans are connected.”

By Trent Opstedahl